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DANA POINT, Calif. -- Unless they change their current direction, the Chicago Bears have decided on this course for improvement at the receiver position: Earl Bennett and the draft.
That's the impression I got Wednesday morning after speaking with coach Lovie Smith on the last day of the NFL owners' meeting. Smith's eyes lit up when I asked about Bennett, and he downplayed any concern about relying on rookie receivers for immediate production.
Bennett didn't catch a pass last season after the Bears selected him in the third round of the 2008 draft. Nevertheless, Smith said he has Bennett penciled in as the starter opposite Devin Hester. The only way that status changes, I'm guessing, is if the Bears bypass their current philosophy and sign a veteran free agent (Torry Holt?) or draft a player who blows him away from the first day of training camp.
On Bennett, Smith said:
"We liked what he did in the preseason. He didn't get a chance to do a lot as a wide receiver last year. But in practice, we saw a change in him last year. He'll get an opportunity. We list him as our starter right now at wide receiver, so he'll get a chance to prove what he can do. He had a lot of success at Vanderbilt. He'll do everything possible to become a good football player in the league."
When asked about the strengths of the 2009 draft, the first position Smith named was receiver. And the Bears have been actively scouting that group, setting up private workouts for North Carolina's Hakeem Nicks and Rutgers' Kenny Britt, among others.
Rookie receivers don't typically contribute right away, however. In 2008, for instance, a total of 35 receivers were drafted. Only four, however, averaged more than two catches per game: Denver's Eddie Royal, Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson, Miami's Davone Bess and St. Louis' Donnie Avery.
Smith, however, said the Bears won't be afraid to play young receivers in 2009:
"I'm not one that thinks you have to have four or five years to be [ready] in this league. We've had success playing guys. [Tailback] Matt Forte was our starter from Day 1. Especially some of the skill positions, especially if they have a veteran group around them. You realize that there's going to be some growing pains you go through, but eventually they get it. So I don't really see that being much of a problem at the receiver position."
Smith has been nothing if not consistent on this issue. He said Wednesday he would like to have at least three playmaking receivers when the season begins. If that's going to happen, it almost certainly will have to be Hester, Bennett and a highly-drafted rookie.